AIKEN -- Savannah River National Laboratory hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the mock-up of the operation that will harvest plutonium-244 (Pu-244), a highly valuable nuclear material used in applications such as nuclear forensics, high precision plutonium measurements, and heavy element research.
The Pu-244 was a byproduct of the long, high-flux irradiation of “Mark 18 targets,” metal cylinders irradiated in the nuclear reactors that operated at the Savannah River Site many decades ago and are now deactivated. Today, the United States lacks facilities and capabilities to create additional Pu-244 and, because of this lack of facilities, the current inventory of this material in Mark 18 targets is simply priceless.
“Currently, we believe we can extract about 20 grams of Pu-244, a material that exists in only one place in the United States,” said Vahid Majidi, SRNL director, “and that is in the Mark 18A ‘targets’ stored at SRS.”
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“We decided to process the targets at SRNL using special Mark 18A equipment in the shielded cells, which provide the shielding and confinement necessary to work with radioactive materials,” said Bill Swift, program manager in SRNL’s Nuclear Materials Management Directorate. “A trained operator can stand safely outside each cell to perform tasks remotely inside the shielded workspace.”
The laboratory has invented unique equipment to enable processing of the 14-foot-long Mark 18A target bundles inside the 6-by-6-foot workspaces of the SRNL-shielded cells. One is a shielded cask that will be used to safely transport and deliver a target from wet storage into a shielded cell. Another is a special insert that will seal the open cell; align the target as it is inserted into the cell from the transport cask, so a saw can slice pieces to be processed in the limited workspace of the cell; and provide shielding during operations in the cell. SRNL also adapted a commercial robot typically used in the automotive industry to remotely remove material from the shielded cell and place it in a shielded container for transport.
SRNL is working to verify the design of the equipment, develop procedures, and train personnel to prepare for the start of recovery operations. Recovery of material from the first Mark 18A target is scheduled to begin in late 2021. The ribbon cutting showcased the layout and equipment that will be used in the recovery operations.
The United Stated Department of Energy Savannah River National Laboratory is a multi-program research and development center that puts science to work to protect the nation by providing practical, cost-effective solutions to the nation’s environmental, nuclear security, nuclear materials management, and energy manufacturing challenges. SRNL is managed for DOE by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, a Fluor-led company whose members are Fluor, Newport News Nuclear and Honeywell. http://srnl.doe.gov